Functional Yoga: Forget What You Thought You Knew About Alignment

Functional Yoga: Forget What You Thought You Knew About Alignment

Take a look at most yoga books published before 1975, and you will notice that there are very few photos, discussions or depictions of proper alignment.  Why are we driven to achieve perfect poses?  More importantly, can striving for the aesthetically perfect pose be physically damaging?

There is a new wave of thinking spreading through the yoga community, led by freethinker Paul Grilley.  His teachings spread the idea that we (yoga teachers) should teach functionally, rather than aesthetically.  Every body is shaped differently. For example, some hip sockets face forward and down, some out to the side.  Even within the same human being, no two bones are exactly alike.  Take this view (below, left) of the heads of two different femur bones, and the picture on the right of two different hips sockets.  How could these two people possibly achieve the same shape in a pose, such as pigeon pose or lotus then?


Could it be that the few who developed the currently accepted “alignment standards”  had bones that could do this and therefore changed the current yoga practices into something unattainable for many yoga practitioners?  No matter how many teachers adjust them or sit on them or verbally critique them?


When you study bone variations, (Paul Grilley’s website exhibits several bone variation photos), it becomes apparent that a “one size fits all” approach is set up to fail.  We must conclude, then, that we need to allow alignment variations to fit our individualities.  One way to do this is through functional yoga.  If the goal of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (1 legged pigeon) is to stretch the gluteus maximus and the IT band, for example, then some practitioners may need to have their front knee up, down or out to the side in order to achieve the desired stretch.  The pelvis may need to over or under rotate.  How is one to know which one is the proper position?  By choosing the positioning that most effectively and safely stretches the targeted area!  How do you know that?  By trying them all!  Exploring, discovering, re-discovering!


A recent article in the NY Times Magazine ( slammed yoga for causing injuries, mostly due to overzealous teachers pushing students beyond their limits.  Perhaps if practitioners and yoga instructors alike become more attuned to the uniqueness of our bodies, we can more fully enjoy and receive the immense benefits of each and every posture.  If we can rid ourselves of the idea that we must work towards attaining a “perfectly aligned” pose, the fewer injuries there will be.


The next time a teacher adjusts your posture, after class, ask them why.  Was it to make your posture aesthetically pretty? Or was it to help you feel the stretch in the targeted area more fully?  Ask your teacher, “Where am I supposed to feel this?”  Yoga should make you feel great.  It should be good therapy– healing injuries rather than causing new ones.  Remember that your teachers are there to provide a safe, comfortable environment for you to practice.  If you’d rather not receive adjustments, (and you understand the function and purpose of the poses), let your teacher know before the start of class that you’d rather not be touched.  It is up to you to honor where you’re at on any particular day in regards to your current flexibility and energy level.   If you are freed from the constraints of attaining a perfect pose, you may even find more joy in your practice, moving organically towards what feels wonderful for YOUR body.

Kelli Russell
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